THE ROLLING STONES: IT'S ONLY ROCK'N'ROLL (1974)
1) If You Can't Rock Me; 2) Ain't Too Proud To Beg; 3) It's Only Rock'n'Roll; 4) Till The Next Goodbye; 5) Time Waits For No One; 6) Luxury; 7) Dance Little Sister; 8) If You Really Want To Be My Friend; 9) Short And Curlies; 10) Fingerprint File.
This is where the rot sets in for real. Ironically, on an individual level most of these songs still sound decent — but when taken all together, they combine in the single ugliest «give the people what you think they want» package assembled by the Rolling Stones so far. Perhaps a proper sleeve photo for this record should not have come from under the paintbrush of Guy Peellaert (who also designed the sleeve for Bowie's Diamond Dogs that same year), but from a stillshot taken from the accompanying video for ʽAin't Too Proud To Begʼ — featuring Mick Jagger in white, pink, green, and lotsa blue around the eyes, as if he was really taking his cues from Bowie but ended up looking like an old drunk drag queen instead. Throw in a vacant-stare Keith, beset with dental problems, a disinterested rhythm section with an «at least we're getting paid» attitude, and a bewildered Mick Taylor, clearly going through a «what the hell am I doing here with these junked-out freaks?» phase — and it is not difficult to understand why It's Only Rock'n'Roll, mildly speaking, rarely finds itself in the company of the most respected Stones albums.
Personnel-wise, the biggest change is that Jimmy Miller is no longer involved: due to his own drug addiction and to Mick thinking he had fallen into a «producer's rut» and was no longer contributing as efficiently to the band's sound as he used to, he was dumped, and The Glimmer Twins settled upon producing the album themselves. This results in a much more unified and predictable guitar sound — even despite the presence of at least three session keyboardists, all of them Stones veterans by now (Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, and Ian Stewart), It's Only Rock'n'Roll pretty much justifies its title, and does so intentionally: the idea here was, quite clearly, to make something sweaty, gritty, nasty, and quite straightforward. No psychedelia, no artsy detours, no experimental weirdness, just rock. And some ballads for a change.
The three crunchy rockers that act as main pillars in the structure — ʽIf You Can't Rock Meʼ, title track, and ʽDance Little Sisterʼ — are okay-like Stones rockers, yet the well was clearly running dry. ʽIf You Can't Rock Meʼ is a weak echo of ʽRocks Offʼ, not just because it is another song with the word ʽrockʼ in the title that opens a Stones album, but because it works as a personal anthemic statement; only this time, it's all about "simply dyin' for some thrills and spills", never going beyond primal urges — and instead of the creepy, unpredictable, drop-down-a-rabbit-hole mid-section of ʽRocks Offʼ, here the instrumental mid-section seems quickly slapped together by Keith in a few seconds just because, you know, gotta have a quick change of key in there somewhere. Likewise, ʽDance Little Sisterʼ is merely a variation on ʽBrown Sugarʼ, except even more repetitive and lyrically shallow — fun as a quick rock'n'roll romp, totally forgettable in the long run; unfortunately, this would become the blueprint for quite a big bunch of C-grade Stones rockers in the coming years.
Only the title track managed to become a «classic» of sorts, as Mick has stubbornly hanged on to it as a live favorite — well, apparently, it doesn't hurt to remind the fans at every show that "it's only rock'n'roll, but I like it". It does have more bite than the other two: delivered in classic menacing mid-tempo, the way things were in the great old Let It Bleed / Ya-Ya's era, it features Mick reeling and reveling in his «champion of rock'n'roll» emploi, poking fun at his dedicated audience and at the same time using it for his own leery purposes. In another bout of irony, the rest of this album may really be "only rock'n'roll", but this particular song is something more — it's got a slightly sinister touch to it, with a grinning rather than just bulky-punchy tone from Keith and a touch of the old Satanic-satiric attitude from Mick (nothing of that, unfortunately, has ever been transmitted from the studio recording to the stage, which is why I rarely, if ever, find solace in any of the live versions of this song). If they ever wanted to write a musical about The Midnight Rambler, ʽIt's Only Rock'n'Rollʼ could easily belong there — and not just because of the line about sticking a knife in one's heart (what's it with Mick Jagger and sticking knives in various parts of one's body, anyway?).
Funny and symbolically enough, ʽIt's Only Rock'n'Rollʼ was one of the few songs here that did not feature Mick Taylor in any form (he's there in the infamous sailors-and-bubbles video for the song, mostly looking like a deeply bored extra), but did feature Ronnie Wood on acoustic rhythm guitar — the hand of fate saw to it that Wood should contribute to the anthemic song that pretty much closed the door on one era and opened it on the next one. As it is, one can clearly see why Taylor took the fateful decision to leave the band after the album was completed: it was not just because Mick and Keith would not let him anywhere near the songwriting process (and even took away those few credits that he did openly deserve, as it was with ʽTime Waits For No Oneʼ), but also because he did not really feel like he'd signed up to play "only rock'n'roll". He'd never felt completely at home with the band since day one, but with things becoming more and more posh and garish with every day, by 1974 he was about as much out of place with the Stones as Tony Iommi was out of place with Jethro Tull back in 1968. On Goats Head Soup, his sound was still in demand — you had ʽ100 Years Agoʼ, ʽWinterʼ, and even ʽSilver Trainʼ, songs that would never have been the same without his distinct touch. On It's Only Rock'n'Roll, is there even a single song where you could say, «okay, this is a definitive Mick Taylor highlight»?
Well, one: ʽTime Waits For No Oneʼ, a Latin-tinged ballad reflecting Mick's inherent fear of aging — and extended with a lengthy solo from Taylor, this time really sounding like Carlos Santana in spots (and in other spots, like Clapton in his Derek & The Dominos period: you can easily spot chord changes very similar to Eric's soloing on ʽLaylaʼ or ʽWhy Does Love Got To Be So Sadʼ). Although the song does not reach the heights of aching beauty that the Stones, at one time, used to hit almost effortlessly, it is still a highlight on this record; and its genre peculiarities and unusual structure prevent it from sharing the same fate as ʽTill The Next Goodbyeʼ, which is also a nice ballad, but sounds too much like a pale shadow of ʽWild Horsesʼ and ʽMoonlight Mileʼ (ah, where was Paul Buckmaster?) to become truly endearing.
Alas, there is little that Mick Taylor can do, either, from preventing this album to feature two of the very, very worst Stones tracks of the decade. ʽLuxuryʼ is an attempt to mix hard rock with elements of reggae, including a cringeworthy «Jamaican» accent from Mr. Red Suit, Green Tie, Blue Makeup, but not including any musical ideas or dynamic development beyond the first 20 seconds of the song — and it goes on for a bleedin' five minutes, and you don't even get to decide if Jagger is lambasting stereotypes or sings about his own rotten self. And then there's the music hall show hour, with ʽShort And Curliesʼ, three minutes of mediocre barrelhouse piano fun whose chief task is to test how many times it is possible to chant "she's got you by the balls" before the line ends up offending every respectable housewife in the country. (Not that any of them ever heard it, since they wisely refrained from releasing it as a single).
These two songs are quite emblematic of the problem: It's Only Rock'n'Roll catches the Stones in a period where «focus» and «self-control» simply got lost in the overall dizziness and haze. Had they been a band of lesser stature, the record would probably be as colorless and boring as anything by latter-day Bloodrock or Steppenwolf; as it was, they could still be capable of solid quality or incidental greatness, but neither was strictly guaranteed. Their big love for classic soul and R'n'B no longer helps them out on either covers (ʽAin't Too Proud To Begʼ has Mick behaving too much like a clown — even without the video — and features a guitar solo from Keith that is as rotten and broken up as his teeth at the time) or originals (ʽIf You Really Want To Be My Friendʼ is almost on the verge of getting it on, but is still spoiled by too much barking from Mick); and their great talent for depth and ambiguity is barely felt on any of the songs.
At the very least, they manage to pull it together on the final track. ʽFingerprint Fileʼ is not one of those tracks that makes your spine tingle with genuine terror, but as far as the art of meaningful rock theater goes, it is one of the finest tracks from 1974. This is the Stones' first (and second to last) entanglement with straightahead funk music, and what makes it so unusual is, perhaps, the weird role reversal adopted for the session: Mick on heavily phased rhythm guitar, Keith on wah-wah lead guitar, Taylor on funky bass, and Wyman on synthesizer (plus Preston and Hopkins both with additional keyboard parts). This results in a really, really odd sound overall, as if the entire track had been recorded inside a refrigerator by a pack of cyborgs — and this oddity goes way beyond the song's lyrical topic of being plagued by FBI agents. The whole thing is more like a general summary of all the paranoia and nervous tension hiding behind the superficial glitz and decadence, an excellent cool-it-off conclusion to the cheap feast of life celebrated on most of the rest of the record. But most importantly, it is just a one-of-a-kind musical groove, a befuddling network of croaky guitars, shadowy keyboards, and constipated vocal gymnastics that succeeds just by being so manifestly over-the-top — all the players get into this spectacle with the same verve that the rock'n'roll troops of the Stones got into the fiery groove of ʽRip This Jointʼ two albums ago. And the way this record opened, with a crash-boom-bang of the most obnoxious order, you'd never have guessed how it would end — on a spooky "good night, sleep tight" whisper that leaves you hiding away in some deep buried bunker, rather than safely and cozily tucked in a nice, clean bed by your loving grandmother, Mrs. Ringo Starr.
So, ʽFingerprint Fileʼ alone is nice, solid proof that the Stones were anything but spent as a creative force — more like seriously derailed, lost in a mess of ever-worsening problems, with Keith continuing to deteriorate as a musician and Mick simply having too many things other than music on his mind. Arguably, this is the band's lowest point in the Seventies (some would argue for Black & Blue instead, but I profoundly disagree), and although I would never propose deleting it from the catalog or anything, 1974 clearly found them in their worst artistic dire straits to that date — much worse than 1967, which found them bravely surviving against legal odds: in 1974, they had to fight themselves to survive as the Rolling Stones, which is always a much tougher challenge. Perhaps Mick's hysterical cry of "if you can't rock me, somebody will!" really betrays his inner fears — those of the band ultimately becoming irrelevant, obsolete, laughed-at, a self-parody act to spook off little children — but It's Only Rock'n'Roll does precious little to overcome these fears. Like everything else they did, it loyally hit #1 all over the world, but even with their minds clouded with drugs, booze, women, and partying, they probably understood it wasn't because of the poetic genius of ʽShort And Curliesʼ. At least Mick Taylor did.